First Nation members guard the pens in two-week shifts, spending nights in the plywood cabin. In the course of the season, the guardians provide the caribou with more than 25,000 pounds of a terrestrial lichen, of the genus Cladonia, gathered by local school children and First Nation members, along with supplemental nutrient pellets that cost between CAN $80,000 and $100,000 each year. The team also sends out trappers to kill wolves in a plan that calls for culling up to 100 wolves a year. Predator reduction is controversial, but the team is committed to the tactic that has a long history of saving endangered species. “This is an emergency measure nobody wants to undertake, but difficult times call for difficult measures,” McNay says.
THE CENTRAL ISSUE of dwindling caribou populations, however, can’t be resolved in the long term by wolf culls and maternal penning. Eighty percent of the Klinse-Za territory has been disturbed by industry and wildfires, with 2,834 miles of logging roads and 289 miles of seismic lines (routes for gas and oil exploration) also fragmenting the landscape. Since 2017, the First Nations have decommissioned one mile of road and covered it with native plants, and excavated five other roads — 24 miles total. They have also planted approximately 40,500 subalpine fir and 60,000 Engelmann spruce seedlings, resulting in 66 percent fewer predators prowling the densified landscape since 2014.
The growth of the Klinse-Za herd, from 16 individuals in 2014 to around 100 today, is astonishing, but it’s not enough.
The growth of the Klinse-Za herd, from 16 individuals in 2014 to around 100 today, is astonishing, but it’s not enough. The West Moberly First Nations estimate that for their entire community of 300 people to sustainably harvest caribou once again, the herd number needs to reach 2,500 to 4,500 animals.
Funding has been one barrier to scaling up their effort. The current success has cost an estimated CAN $5 million so far for just maternity penning (which also requires often difficult-to-obtain Crown land permits) and wolf culling. Habitat restoration has cost an additional CAN $1 million or so per year.
At the outset, the First Nations approached the province to help fund the maternity pen initiative, which costs around CAN $650,000 annually. The province was initially supportive of the idea of First Nations taking on a “shepherding” role, but when the tribes applied for permits to erect the pen, the BC provincial government, especially, was considerably reluctant to allow the operation. According to Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations, both the federal and provincial governments were concerned that the project would spur invoking of Section 11 of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), which requires the federal environment minister to take action to protect critical habitat for endangered species, and in turn would mean curtailing all industrial development and recreational activity in the region. Section 11 would also enable the federal government to make decisions normally within the jurisdiction of the BC government, including whether or not to grant mining or logging permits.
In the end, 25 percent of the initial funding came from industrial and public sponsors, with most of that coming from oil, mining, and logging companies keen to boost their image. By 2017, the Caribou Conservation Society was CAN $750,000 in debt. In addition to these constraints, it can also be challenging to find enough caribou guardians willing to do the job. It pays well — but not as well as jobs in the resource extraction sector.
Today, though, at least the financial constraint has been resolved. In 2019, the then federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna declared that the southern mountain caribou faced “imminent threats” and that immediate intervention was required. The BC government was compelled to come up with a recovery plan to protect the six critically endangered herds in Treaty 8 traditional territory in BC’s northeast, including the Klinse-Za herd. In February 2020, the BC and Canadian governments formalized the plan and signed a historic partnership agreement with the First Nations to help recover northeastern BC’s woodland caribou population. The agreement commits to creating a new 206,000-hectare provincial park, the size of more than 700,000 sports stadiums, providing opportunities for First Nations to be active stewards of their lands, and furnishing tens of millions of dollars in funding.
Under this agreement, 70 percent of the Klinse-Za historic territory will be restored at an estimated cost of CAN $20 million. The BC government has also committed CAN $47 million over five years to support the Provincial Caribou Recovery Program. Of that funding, CAN $8.5 million will go toward the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund that aids provincial conservation efforts for fish and wildlife habitat. The Canadian government is adding CAN $10 million to this initiative that will go toward predator culling, maternity pens, supplemental feeding, habitat restoration management, and the Indigenous Guardians Program. All this has the potential to be a turning point for the Peace Region’s woodland caribou.
Not everyone is happy with the way funds are moving towards First Nations and caribou conservation. The day the agreement was signed, the BC Council of Forest Industries and the Forest Products Association of Canada issued a statement, saying, “We are deeply disappointed that the separate Partnership Agreement signed today permanently removes a significant amount of fiber from the timber harvesting land base and creates additional operational uncertainty.”
This statement followed claims from the CEO of West Fraser Mill that the company would have to close and lay off 700 people if the province signed the agreement, an outcome that didn’t materialize. The timber company Canfor threatened the same thing, even though the real hit to the industry is the dropping market price for wood products in recent years. Willson says that these statements are a type of industry-spun misinformation. “They diverted attention away from the fact that they mismanaged the resource and were looking at large forest cut reductions due to the pine beetle,” he says, referring to that pest and the spruce bud beetle infestations that were destroying trees in the region.
Backlash to the agreement has also led to a slew of racist abuse directed toward First Nations in the Peace Region by locals angered that the interests of the tribe were seemingly being put ahead of that of industries that employed them. “It’s hard for BC to promote business if they are shutting down areas for conservation purposes,” Willson admits. But the Dunne-za say resource extraction is short-term thinking: Conserving the forest will protect the province’s socioeconomic well-being long into the future, they say.
Willson also points out that Treaty 8 of 1899 — one of several early agreements between First Nations and Canadian settlers — “explicitly states ‘No forced interference’” with the First Nations’ way of life. Industry impacts on caribou, Willson says, are a clear violation of this treaty. “The treaty is a constitutionally protected agreement, so any violation of the treaty should be considered a violation of Canada’s constitution.”
“In saving the caribou, we are essentially saving ourselves and our culture.”
Treaty laws and intergovernmental agreements notwithstanding, protecting caribou, according to the people behind the Caribou Conservation Society, is about much more than just saving a species. Rather, it concerns saving the fabric of a place — and the human and nonhuman communities that inhabit it. Indeed, the new park, which includes old-growth boreal forests, will increase protected areas in the Peace Region to 6.7 percent of the landscape from 4.2 percent, and will help protect at least 36 other endangered and threatened species, including grizzly bears and fishers.
“The caribou and the Dunne-za people lived together since time immemorial,” says Willson. “The Dunne-za utilized every aspect of the caribou and their habitat. The caribou are a part of us. What happens to the caribou happens to us. In saving the caribou, we are essentially saving ourselves and our culture.”
LAST AUGUST, I DROVE up to the Klinse-Za maternity pen with Matt Erickson, a 25-year-old wildlife biologist who worked with Wildlife Infometrics at the time, to witness the release of the year’s batch of caribou cows and their calves into the wild.
Erickson grew up in Prince George, four hours southwest, but now lives in Mackenzie, a logging community and extractive resource hub that is often seen as at odds with those trying to save the forest’s endangered caribou. “I go to many of these town hall caribou recovery talks, and there is a lot of emotion and misinformation. I have a lot of common ground with these locals; I hunt, trap, snowmobile, and my uncle is a retired sawmill worker,” he says. “Most [of these] things can be done on the land if managed properly.” These days, he says, most locals support caribou recovery as long as it doesn’t threaten their livelihood or close off recreation areas.